On Friday ex-New Yorker scribe Dan Baum began telling the story of his employment at the magazine through a medium rarely synonymous with narrative storytelling—-Twitter. As of this writing he's up to 1399 words!
Baum, who won the respect and admiration of many, particularly Louisiana natives like myself, through his post-Katrina dispatches from the ground in the New Yorker's New Orleans Journal, used his Twitter account to detail in 140 character bursts how, among other things, it took him seventeen years of pitching stories to finally break through with the magazine.
First, a little about the job of New Yorker staff writer. "Staff writer" is a bit of a misnomer, as you're not an employee, But rather a contractor. So there's no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-Year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet. It's Just the way the New Yorker chooses to behave. It shows no loyalty to its writers, yet expects full fealty in return. It gets away with it, because writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs. Like everybody, I Loved it. More later.
It took me seventeen years to break into the New Yorker. I'd been a freelance journalist that long, and had sent in Proposals from time to time. I never even got rejections. The New Yorker doesn't send them. If they don't want the Story, they simply don't respond, so filing to the New Yorker is like filing to the dump. You send in a proposal, and if you're smart, you forget all about it.
Baum went on to detail many of the story ideas he pitched the magazine and the various stop/starts that came along the way, even linking to a number of the proposals he submitted as a freelancer, taking the timeline up to the point where he was getting assignments regularly from the magazine, but anxiously awaiting a seemingly elusive offer to become a full-fledged staff writer. Then came the breakthrough he'd been waiting for.
Then, out of the blue, Rolling Stone called with a jaw-dropping over-the-transom assignment: 30,000 words on missile defense, to run over several issues, and paying $90,000. I was floored. I got the call while I was in San Francisco working on yet another New Yorker assignment about geneticists trying to make people live forever. Right after I hung up with Rolling Stone, John Bennet, my New Yorker editor, called for some reason. In an act of inadvertant brilliance, I mentioned to him my new Rolling Stone assignment. Forty minutes later, David Remnick rang my phone. "Don't do that Rolling Stone piece, he said. "Come to work for me instead, on staff." The heavenly angels burst into song. I'd made it to the staff of the New Yorker.
When you really stop to think about it, this is sort of a watershed moment for Twitter, and storytelling in general, isn't it? I mean, here's a guy, a widely respected writer, using Twitter's 140 character "tweets" to weave a bit of an epic story, a story I can easily see aspiring journalists turning to for years to come as a resource and for inspiration. I certainly can't recall anything else of the sort happening previously.